November 29, 2021
What is Literary Journalism: a Guide with Examples

What is Literary Journalism: a Guide with Examples

Literary journalism is a genre created with the help of a reporter’s inner voice and employing a writing style based on literary techniques. The journalists working in the genre of literary journalism must be able to use the whole literary arsenal: epithets, impersonations, comparisons, allegories, etc. Thus, literary journalism is similar to fiction. At the same time, it remains journalism, which is the opposite of fiction as it tells a true story. The journalist’s task here is not only to inform us about specific events but also to affect our feelings (mainly aesthetic ones) and explore the details that ordinary journalism overlooks.

Characteristics of literary journalism

Modern journalism is constantly changing, but not all changes are good for it (take fake news proliferating thanks to social media, for instance). Contemporary literary journalism differs from its historic predecessor in the following:

  • Literary journalism almost completely lost its unity with literature
  • Journalists have stopped relying on the literary features of the language and style
  • There are fewer and fewer articles in the genre of literary journalism in modern editions
  • Contemporary media has lost the need in literary journalism
  • The habits of media consumers today are not sophisticated enough for a revival of literary journalism

The most prominent works of literary journalism

With all this, it’s no surprise that we need to go back in time to find worthy examples of literary journalism. Fortunately, it wasn’t until the 1970-s that literary journalism came to an end, so here are 4 great works of the genre that are worth every minute of your attention.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Mark Twain studied journalism from the age of 12 and until the end of his life. It brought him his first glory and a pseudonym and made him a writer. In 1867, Twain (as a correspondent of the newspaper Daily Alta California, San Francisco) went on a sea voyage to Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. His reports and travel records turned into the book The Innocents Abroad, which made him famous all over the world.

In some sense, American journalism came out of letters that served as an important source of information about life in the colonies. The newspaper has long been characterized by an epistolary subjectivity, and Twain’s book recalls the times when no one thought that neutrality would one day become one of the hallmarks of the “right” journalism.

Of course, Twain’s travel around the Old World was a journey not only through geography but also through the history that Twain resolutely refused to worship. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes not too much, but the more valuable are the lyrical and sublime notes that sound when Twain-the-narrator is truly captivated by something.

John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946)

John Hersey was a war correspondent and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his debut story A Bell for Adano. As a reporter of The New Yorker, he was one of the first journalists from the USA who came to Hiroshima to describe the consequences of the atomic bombing.

Starting with where two doctors, two priests, a seamstress, and a plant employee were and what they were doing at exactly 08:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Hersey describes the year they lived after that. Hersey’s uniform and detached tone seems to be the only appropriate medium in relation to what one would call indescribable and inexpressible. Without allowing himself sentimentality, admiring horrors, or obvious partiality, he doesn’t miss any of the details that add up to a horrible and magnificent picture.

Hiroshima became a sensation due to the formidable brevity of the author’s prose, which tried to give the reader the most explicit (and the most complete) idea of what happened for the first time in mankind’s history

Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1965)

Truman Capote turned to journalism as a young writer looking for a new form of self-expression. He read an article about the murder of the family of a farmer Herbert Clutter in Holcomb City (Kansas) in the newspaper and went there to collect the material. His original idea was to write about how a brutal murder influenced the life of the quiet backwoods. The killers were caught, and Capote decided to use their confessions in his book. He finished it only after the killers were hanged. This way, the six-year story got the finale.

In Cold Blood was published in “The New Yorker” in 1965. Next year it was released as a book that became the benchmark of true crime and a super bestseller. “In Cold Blood” includes:

  • A stylistic brilliance.
  • Inexorable footsteps of doom destroying both innocent and guilty.
  • The horror hidden in a person and waiting for a chance to break out.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Tomas Wolfe is one of the key figures of literary journalism. Mainly due to his creative and, so to speak, production efforts, “the new journalism” became an essential part of American culture and drew close attention (both critical and academic).

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test became one of the hallmarks of this type of journalism with its focus on aesthetic expressiveness (along with documentary authenticity). This is a story about the writer Ken Kesey and his friends and associates’ community, “Merry Pranksters”, who spread the idea of the benefits of expanding consciousness.

Wolfe decided to plunge into the “subjective reality” of the characters and their adventures. To convey them to the reader, he had to “squeeze” the English language: Wolfe changes prose to poetry, dives into the stream of consciousness, and mocks the traditional punctuation. In general, he does just about everything to make a crazy carnival come to life on the pages of his book (without actually participating in it). Compare that with gonzo journalism by Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which draws upon some similar themes.

The book’s main part is devoted to the journey of the “pranksters” on a psychedelic propaganda bus and the “acid tests” themselves, which were actually parties where a lot of people took LSD. Wolfe had to use different sources of information to reconstruct these events, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t experience any of them himself. Yet, no matter how bright his book shines and how much freedom it shows, Wolfe makes it clear that he’s talking about a doomed project and an ending era.